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Issue 69 - Your sweetheart Charlie

Scotland Magazine Issue 69
June 2013

 

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Your sweetheart Charlie

Heidi Soholt reports on the mystery of a First World War sweetheart

It was while researching her family history that Jane Miller first came across a collection of photographs and postcards from soldiers fighting in the First World War. They had belonged to her mother, Grace, who had passed away some years previously, but quite how they had come to be in her possession was a complete mystery.

The photos were mostly of young men, from a collection of regiments, none of whom were known to Miller. Some of the images, which had been kept together in a cardboard box, had handwritten messages on the back. One handsome face featured on several, and the words on the reverse indicated that his name was Charlie. From his various messages, it seemed that Charlie had been romantically involved with Grace. “Just a line to let you know that I have just arrived in this place safely,” reads one, dated 1 March 1917 and from ‘Codford’. “I have just arrived here about an hour ago and I do feel lonely and miserable after your sweet company. I may not have had time to see about the telegram yet. Jim Pratt got an extension of leave. If the boat don’t go soon dear I am going to give it another try. Say honey, I do miss you and I miss your sweet kisses too. Well darling I am going to bed now but will write tomorrow again so good night sweet.” The letter is signed off: “From your own sweetheart Charlie.”

“I have no idea who Charlie was and there is no surname on the letters so I haven’t been able to trace him,” says Miller (80) from Kirkcaldy, Fife. “My mother never mentioned anyone called Charlie, and never spoke about anyone from the war. My mother was very reserved and never told me anything about when she was young.”

Although the letter is addressed to ‘Mack’ Miller is confident it was intended for Grace.

“My mother’s first name was Grace but her middle name was Mackie,” explains Miller. “I think ‘Mack’ was a nickname – short for Mackie.” Miller also believes that Charlie was from New Zealand as one of the photographs is captioned ‘Anzacs in France. New Zealanders cheer the King.’ Charlie has written: “I am in this mob, this is part of my battalion to which I belong the ‘Dintes’.”

Grace Mackie Cameron was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1896, which meant she would have been in her late teens during the war.

Her brother, George, could have provided a link with Charlie in that he emigrated to Australia while young, and fought with the Anzacs (an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) during the war. Grace married her first husband, David Laverock in 1922, and was widowed in 1926. She then married Miller’s father, John Whyte Herd, in 1930. John worked as a coalminer and then at Rosyth Dockyard. The couple stayed in Kirkcaldy, where they brought up their family.

It is clear from his letters that Charlie had met Grace in person, but quite how her mother, a teenager from Fife, had managed to meet an Anzac soldier, puzzles Miller. The mention of ‘Codford’ in the note to Grace probably refers to the English village in Wiltshire which had close associations with Anzac soldiers during the war. Large training and transfer camps were established there, and it was also a depot for men evacuated from the front line.

Charlie could have been transferred there after being injured, for one of the postcards, undated, which depicts Charlie and another soldier, reads: “Don’t faint when you see this. I am the bloke with the stick. Don’t show it to anybody. It’s a disgrace but I want to send you something to give you an idea of what I am like. Don’t judge me by it I was very thin at the time. It is the only photo I have but will get another taken especially for you when I am out of this pickle.”

Another picture, dated 13 February 1917, shows Charlie and two other men, one seated, with a nurse. “My room mates and the sister in charge,” it reads. “Taken in our room. Yours truly in the overcoat. I was just going out to do the rounds. Pretty rough crew what say you. I am getting the other photo of myself again. Will send on along tomorrow. Love Charlie.”

The fact that Charlie refers to “going out to do the rounds” could indicate that he was a medic, but the references to his “room mates” and “sister in charge” are more likely to mean that he was a patient.

According to records, the Anzacs were a fairly common sight in Scotland during WW1, and this could explain how Grace and Charlie had met. The large number of Scottish Australians and New Zealanders in the Anzac forces meant that the country was a favourite destination while on leave. The Australian war historian Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean also mentions that Scottish and Anzac regiments, who often battled side by side, shared a mutual respect for each other, something which drew many to visit Scotland where they were warmly welcomed.

Such kind hospitality and friendship must have meant a great deal to young men facing the horrors of war so far away from home.

The Anzacs participated in many of the First World War’s biggest battles, and lost more than 22,000 men in the Somme – a section of the Western Front comprise of trenches which ran 700 kilometres from Belgium to the Swiss border. One Anzac, who joined the fighting in August 1916, described the Somme thus: “A place so terrible that a raving lunatic could never have imagined it”. It has been claimed that one out of every two soldiers there became a casualty.

One postcard indicates that Charlie was at the Somme. “Going to have a booze (underlined) at the Somme just before the fight. Charlie”, it reads. The Anzacs arrived in 1916, and they had two corps stationed there.

Charlie would have been lucky to survive, although the postcard depicting him with a nurse and “about to do the rounds” indicates that he was alive at least until February 1917.

The Anzacs fought at various locations in Europe. The New Zealand Division, which developed a reputation for being among the best of the formations under British command, fought in four phases of the 1916 Battles of the Somme.

In 1917 they participated in the Battle of Messines and the Battle of Ypres. Their contribution in Europe continued in 1918, and they were selected to advance into Germany where demobilisation commenced in late 1918. The division was eventually disbanded in Germany in March 1919.

Miller is optimistic that the publication of Charlie’s photographs, and details of his notes, could help uncover a clue to his identity. As for now, she is left with a box of anonymous mementoes and the haunting face of an Anzac soldier, long lost but, she hopes, not forgotten.